Prominent Montreal activist Jaggi Singh has been a regular presence at Occupy Montreal this week. With a history of activism across a range of issues, from promoting indigenous rights and solidarity to anti-capitalist and anti-police brutality demonstrations, Singh has been a vocal presence at the Occupation since it started.
Attending the Occupation as a representative of indigenous rights group Decolonize Montreal, Singh and Decolonize Montreal colleague Mostafa Hennaway took a moment on Sunday to speak with The Daily about their thoughts on the occupation, why they were there, and how long they were planning on staying.
The McGill Daily: Can you speak a little bit about Decolonize Montreal and your position on the organization of occupation?
Jaggi Singh: I think a lot of the people involved with the groups around Decolonize Montreal – so those are groups like Solidarity Across Borders, Indigenous Solidarity Committee, Tadamon!, No One is Illegal, the Montreal Childcare Collective, and a lot of activists around those circles, anti-capitalist circles – we were observing…what’s happening with Occupy Wall Street and other movements, and on one level we’re really inspired, on another level we’re really confused, on another level we’re really critical. Decolonize Montreal, I feel, is a constructive response to that, which we sort of came up with a few days, maybe a week ago, knowing that [the occupation] was going to happen, because we think it’s great that people are occupying the space, in that sense.
But we feel it’s important that we are critical of some of the things we take for granted in our society – so, like being critical of capitalism, of course, which is what a lot of people here are doing – but also the fact that we are on stolen native territory is important to recognize. And not just recognize in a superficial way, but understand that the process of decolonization is not a process where some people leave and some people stay, but rather it’s understanding how do we coexist on this earth? How do we coexist on this land? So that’s really foundational to all the groups that are part of the Decolonize Montreal contingent; that we find recognition of indigenous sovereignty, and also working on that as non-native people, to be foundational.
But to add to that, there’s also being clear about our anti-capitalist analysis, anti-racist as well. Sometimes large gatherings have a way of erasing identities that are important identities to keep in mind. So when we say, ‘We are the 99 per cent’ it doesn’t mean we’re all the same within that 99 per cent. It’s important to talk about that to make our movement stronger, to talk about racism, to talk about patriarchy, to talk about all that is to make our movement stronger, because otherwise we’re going to have this false sense of unity.
Also, we wanted to emphasize community organizing that already happens. It’s not just starting here – this is amazing, I’ve never seen anything like this in any major North American city in my lifetime, where people are actually camping out in the financial district and are planning to stay for weeks, or as long as it takes – so that’s amazing, but community organizing is happening all the time. A lot of it is invisible, behind the scenes, people surviving, people meeting their basic needs – food, housing, shelter – but also some of them are organizing efforts that really resonate with what’s happening here, such as the anti-police brutality demonstration that’s happening on October 22 and the anti-G20 demo that’s happening on November 3. The G20 is the executive board of global capitalism. They meet and they plan better austerity measures. They meet and they plan how to better exploit people around the world, and they wrap it up in all kinds of nice-sounding words. So they’re meeting in Cannes, France, on November 3, and we’ll be demonstrating on the streets with a group called the Anti-Capitalist Convergence.
Also we were very critical of the fact that some people within the Occupy Montreal movement managed to pass the idea that the police are our potential allies. We’re not necessarily here to get into a pissing match with the police, but the police are not our potential allies. Our movements are better and stronger when we don’t let the police, or the mainstream media, or the one per cent – the people in power – navigate our differences. We navigate our differences in a spirit of respect and solidarity and don’t let the police sort of divide and rule. So we’re very critical of that idea and want to promote a respect for diversity of tactics.
So, that’s a long answer, but that kind of is in some why we come together as Decolonize Montreal. But we do it really to engage people, and that’s a two-pronged process. It’s to talk with people, but also to listen, and I think just now Moose (who is this?) and I having been getting a lot out of just listening to people and what they have to say about why they’re hear, and that’s great.
MD: Are you part of any committees? What are the committees like?
Mostafa Hennaway: We haven’t because we’ve been focused on the Decolonize Montreal contingent and trying to plan activities and popular education workshops. There’s been series of workshops already, one on uprisings in the Arab world, one on the prison hunger strike recently in Pelican Bay in California, one on the new prison bill that’s going to be put forth by the Conservative government, another on tough on crime (what is tough on crime?), and then there was one on the CSIS Watch campaign. So we’ve been focusing on activities around Decolonize Montreal, but the one thing that is uniquely special about this space and the process is that it totally undermines the logic of capitalism in the heart of the financial district, the fact that you have a space where people are horizontally (horizontally what) though massive general assemblies deciding on how they’re going to move forward, and creating a sense of self-organization. So there’s the food tent, or there’s the [Wat-hub], or there’s the cultural space, or there’s the family, children’s section behind us. The fact that they’re creating a sense of organization along non-hierarchical lines is fundamentally already challenging the way that capitalism and colonialism function, and doing it right in the middle of the financial district of Montreal is pretty impressive. [So we’re not] directly participating in the committees, but [we] participated in the General Assembly yesterday.
JS: There are members of Decolonize Montreal that are participating on a few of the committees, and I think what I can add to what [Hennaway] said is that there’s an emphasis here on consensus decision-making, and horizontalism. It’s only day two. It’s going to be very raw and clumsy and messy and frustrating and long, but that’s what direct democracy is. I have had only rare occasion to participate in assemblies of several hundred people. I have never participated in one where 99 per cent of the people in the assembly were people I had never met before. Of course that process is going to be a bit difficult, but I think as we break down the committees, have delegation, begin to get a sense of our comfort levels, begin to learn about things, that will help that process. And this needs to gain traction, and this should be seen as a microcosm of what we should be doing everywhere. And if it’s cold, then we should be occupying spaces inside the stock exchange there – the [Bourse], it’s not a stock exchange anymore – but [the Bourse] building. That’s a building where they have completely empty floors. Well, we should be making that into something beautiful and expressive, maybe a place where people can live, maybe somewhere we can go in the winter so that we can continue this experiment of direct democracy.
I help organize the Montreal Anarchist Bookfair, and it’s been going on for more than a decade, and, at the Bookfair, people share all kinds of experiences of horizontalism and direct democracy and the rest of it, historically. Well, we’re in a moment right now here where people are doing so in the Square in Montreal. And the other thing to keep in mind is that we’re not doing this alone, this is happening worldwide. In Madrid, in South America, all over the US, people are doing similar experiments. So, there is a local part of the Montreal component that we should look at and push forward, and that has its own flair, but keep in mind that this is happening elsewhere, and it really is a horizontal undermining[JM1] , but let’s see where we take it further, and I’d like not to present ourselves as having all the answers. We do believe it’s important to know what kind of questions to ask, and also know to name our oppressor, but should we go occupy other buildings? Should we talk about how we take down the system? Let’s take the time to gain a comfort level with each other around that, because clearly the strength of the movement isn’t that we all have the same point of view all the time, but it’s rather that we have a method, a means to debate our differences. That’s what I think respect[ing] diversity of tactics is about as well.
MD: Are you coming back to camp?
JS: Yeah, I mean, I made the joke – I mean, I won’t make the joke again – but what I’ll say is, I’m not a camping person. I enjoy the wilderness, I enjoy being in the wild, I don’t mind being out there, but I’m not a camping person, and I can contribute here in many, many ways. So, we’re trying to organize workshops, we’re here talking with people, we’re trying to keep a presence, but definitely, as this continues, there needs to be a rotation of tasks. I’m going to cuddle one evening with Moose and keep warm, and that part of it is actually essential, because the people who are making this happen – like, we all are making it happen – but the people who are physically making it happen are the people who are staying here. And tonight is a very sensitive part of it, because I’m sure the police don’t mind letting it go on a Saturday, and letting it go on a Sunday, but the work week starts. I think they’re hoping that the weather, and the winter – which is a big factor in Quebec – will disperse people. But that’s how we need to start talking. I think we need to start bringing in shelters here that have stoves inside – yurts as they call them – so that we can be warm and continue here, because you’ve got Quebecor, you’ve got the Centre de Commerce, you’ve got the Bourse, you have the major banks, power corporations, you have the ruling class of Quebec capitalism within blocks of here. They work here, these are their offices, this is what they’ve taken for granted. We are re-occupying it, and we should make sure that they see us and they take us seriously. And that will be a discussion we need to have in assemblies, in our smaller groups – it’s not just the assemblies, right – and I feel like we should. One thing I think about Decolonize Montreal that I feel really close to is the fact that we should recognize the community organizing that’s happening everywhere, not just the groups that are in Decolonize Montreal who do that organizing, but groups all over the city that are fighting for social housing, fighting for the rest of it. Let’s try to see a way of combining a moment in the Square with the organizing people do in their neighborhoods, in their factories, in their workplaces, in their schools, all the time. When those two things can hook up – the inspiration of occupying a public square and keeping it going and having these democratic processes – when that can hook up with the survival and the organizing that people are doing in their neighborhoods and their schools and their workplaces, then we’re unstoppable. But how we get there, that’s a huge, huge question, but we definitely should start talking about it, start talking about our dreams, and talking about our dreams and then talking about what we need to do to fight to meet those dreams.
—compiled by Erin Hudson